Posts Tagged ‘Byzantium’

Dubious Italians

Posted in General on October 12th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

October 12, 1492:  Christopher Columbus Is Killed by the Aztec Navy

At least, that is what happened in an alternate, more logical universe.  In our three-dimensions Columbus simply mistook the Bahamas for Japan.  Other than desperation, he had no reason to think so.  The Arawaks did not exactly look Japanese.  Both the Mongol invasions and Marco Polo had provided Europeans with a fairly accurate stereotype of the Oriental appearance.  And even if the Japanese were just a third-rate, hand-me-down imitation of China, the Arawaks still failed any cultural or sartorial comparison.  On the other hand, if Columbus acknowledged his obvious failure, a very disappointed King Ferdinand might have turned the Genoese over to Torquemada.  Yes, the flammable Columbus was safer to insist that he had landed at the nudist colony of Kyoto.

And that is why Italian-Americans celebrate October 12th or at least its nearest Monday.  Columbus might have appreciated the attention but he certainly would have wondered why those people were claiming to be Italian.  Genoa and Naples may have shared a peninsula, but nothing else.  As any Lombard, Tuscan, Roman or Venetian would have agreed, the real Italy only extended as far south as Gaeta.  Beyond that–Campania, Calabria and Sicily–was western Greece.  Ironically, those Neapolitans, Calabrians and Sicilians (the forebears of most Italian Americans) would have agreed.  They did think of themselves as Greeks.  When Rome was just an obscure village Sicily and Southern Italy were valued regions of the Hellenistic world.  Naples originally was Neopolis, and Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because of its disastrous campaign in Sicily.

This Hellenic identification continued in the Middle Ages. The Byzantines held Sicily until the Arabs invaded in 827; and the Greeks and Sicilians put up such a tenacious resistance that the Moslem conquest of the island took more than a century. Indeed, the Moslems were too exhausted to effectively threaten the Italian mainland.

Southern Italy remained Byzantine until the 11th century, when a less heralded but equally profitable Norman invasion conquered the region. The final schism between Rome and Constantinople began at that time when the Catholic Church, under the auspices of those Norman parishioners, began appointing clergy in what had been Greek Orthodox dioceses.  Even after the loss of their Italian provinces, the Byzantines maintained their covert ties to the Sicilians and Southern Italians. In the 13th century, a weakened Constantinople could no longer reconquer its lost lands but it could help determine who would rule them. A French dynasty in Southern Italy seemed more hostile than its Aragonese rival. Demonstrating a genius for conspiracy that our CIA would envy, in 1282 the Byzantines helped organize an uprising against the French that we know as “The Sicilian Vespers.” The French were driven out, and the Aragonese moved in.  They then would spend the next two centuries dueling for control of Southern Italy, leaving the Byzantines free of further threats from the West.  (The Turks were coming from the East.)

Even today,  in isolated areas of Southern Italy the populace speaks a dialect of Greek.  So Columbus certainly would wonder why all these Byzantines were claiming to be his paisanos.

The Princess Diatribes

Posted in General on October 30th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

October 30, 1863:  Nepotism Pays Off Even It Takes 22 Generations

There have always been some advantages to being a princess.  If nothing else, you never starved.  (Throughout much of European history, that was a major advantage.)  Unfortunately, most princesses were superfluous and expendable.  In the Russian court, at least until Peter the Great, the imperial sister and daughter were  packed off to a convent.  True, most of those convents had all the luxuries of the Kappa Kappa Gamma house at Northwestern except for the mating with Delta Kappa Epsilon; nonetheless it was exile.  The French Court was a little more generous with mademoiselle la princesse.  The king permitted his spinster sisters to stay at Versailles and teach the harpsichord to his spinster daughters.

Of course, many princesses had diplomatic careers–as the sacrifice in a political marriage.  Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, was married off to Louis XII–who was three times her age.  At least the old goat was kind to her, and also was obliging enough to die after three months of marriage.  Other princesses were far more miserable.  The French princess who married Edward II discovered she was the lesser queen of the two.  A sixth century Ostrogothic princess had her nose slit off by her husband–quite literally the King of the Vandals; at least her father took her back and broke off the alliance.  There were worse fates than a comfy convent.

During the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Princess was esteemed as the most prestigious bride for a political marriage.  She represented the wealth and sophistication of the greatest power in Christendom.  Indeed, when one Byzantine daughter married into the Capetians, she was the only literate in the French royal family.  Of course, Byzantium dismissed most European suitors as unworthy of an imperial bride; but a few indispensible allies were begrudged the distinction.  The Doges of Venice were entitled to the Emperor’s nieces.  And to placate the northern shore of the Black Sea, the Great Princes of Kiev could have an imperial sister or daughter.

By the end of the 12th century, however, the Byzantine Empire was in decline and so were the standards for a political marriage.  The Empire still dominated the Balkans but had lost Sicily and Southern Italy to Norman brigands.    Holding off the Turks in Western Anatolia (a losing battle since the area is now called Turkey), the Byzantines had no force to reconquer their lost Italian provinces.  However, the Empire still had a strategy for winning back the territory.  Her name was Irene Angelina, the daughter of Emperor Isaac II, and she was married off to the crown prince of Norman Sicily.  Irene was all of 12 years old.

She was a bride in 1193, a widow the same year, and a prisoner in 1194.  Southern Italy and Sicily had been conquered by Philip of Swabia, a cousin of the Norman line, who felt that he had a more legitimate claim to the throne.  He certainly had the better army.  Philip was smitten with the young Byzantine princess.  He was twice her age–but that only made him 27–and he decided to marry her.  The German prince had nothing to gain from a political perspective.  Her father had been overthrown, blinded and imprisoned by his brother–who had his own daughters available for political alliance.  So Irene’s looks and charm were all the dowry she could offer.

But they lived happily ever after–until childbearing finally killed her in 1208.

On October 30, 1863, Prince Christian Wilhelm Ferdinand Adolf George of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksberg arrived in Greece, invited by public vote to take the throne.  No, his name does not sound Greek, but the future George I did boast of his Hellenic heritage.   He was the great-great-great-great-great-(you get the idea–22 generations) grandson of Irene Angelina.

The First Draft

Posted in General, On This Day on February 5th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

The Empress Theodora died some 1400 years ago. Hollywood still might not be ready for her. So, how would I sell the ‘concept’…

“Trust me Bubbie-baby (Bubbie-sen in the case of Sony/Columbia), history makes a good story; in fact, that is why it is history! The storyline has sex, intrigue, war, plague, corruption and religion; of course, it can be funny. That’s how I intended it.

“The plot in a sentence? An intelligent prostitute works her way to the throne, where she plots, terrorizes, extorts and kills for the sake of justice, social reform, religious tolerance and governmental efficiency….No, she didn’t morph. The career change took several years.

“Yes, I suppose that there are marketing opportunities; maybe, Hanes could could come out with a line of tunics, or Monsanto could manufacture pre-fab mosaics. The Vandals, Goths and Huns would make great action figures. I’m not so sure about a tie-in with Hallmark; the only cuddly, little characters would be the court eunuchs.

“Theodora is a great role. She is a career woman, a 6th century feminist as well as a recovering nymphomaniac. Yes, I could see Meryl Streep trying her medieval Greek accent; we could call the film ‘Hagia Sophia’s Choice.’ Yes, it could be a vehicle for Brad and Angelina although the Emperor Justinian never did not his own fighting, especially single-handed. True, only three historians would know the difference.

“Music videos? Actually, Gregorian chants came a little later. I suppose if Evita Peron can sing, so can Theodora.

“Yes, I know that science fiction sells better than history. Perhaps we caould set the story in the 33rd century instead of the 6th. We can add the special effects that history lacks. You know, ‘Theodora and the Byzantine Empire’ does have an extraterrestrial ring to it. We can market it as a sequel to Barbarella.”

Who knows? I might end as successful a prostitute as Theodora.

Apocalypse Then: December 12, 627

Posted in On This Day on December 14th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

In 627 a biblical prophecy came true-for a while. Five centuries earlier a Jew-for-Jesus, now remembered as St. John, had predicted a decisive battle between the Empires of the East and the West. The Book of Revelations has been cited as a prediction of the Cold War, September 11th and Rupert Murdoch; however, St. John thought that he writing about Rome and Parthia.

Parthia was Rome’s annoying neighbor to the East. Alexander the Great may have destroyed one Persian empire but with sufficient time and spite the Iranians had created another. Parthia bordered Rome’s Asian provinces and was never shy about raiding them. Of course, Rome retaliated but lost a few armies learning the tactics of desert warfare. The two Empires had already been sparring for a century when John pioneered stream-of-consciousness.

The conflict had lasted nearly two centuries when the Emperor Trajan (53-117) resolved to end it by conquering Mesopotamia. Marching east from Asia Minor, through Armenia (Of course, no one asked the Armenians for permission; no one ever does.) Rome’s army then attacked south along the Euphrates. In a two year campaign (114-115), led personally by Trajan, the Romans conquered Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, the Parthians did not seem to realize that they had been defeated and humiliated. Their forces east of the Tigris were just as annoying as ever. Mesopotamia itself was in continuous rebellion. Trajan died of natural causes-really. The Roman army, hoping to do the same, left Mesopotamia soon after.

And the war continued. Eighty years later, the Emperor Septimus Severus “conquered” Mesopotamia and withdrew two years later. However, the Parthians could hardly feel victorious. Rome had repeatedly sacked their cities but they were in no position to rampage through Italy. Parthia’s leaders realized the futility of their situation and came to one rational conclusion: they needed even more belligerent rulers to fight Rome.

The new dynasty-the Sassanids for you name-droppers-managed to continue the war for another three centuries. Proclaiming themselves as the heirs and avengers of the first Persian Empire, the Sassanids were not merely aggressive and vain; they were lucky. Rome was growing weaker. When the legions were not slaughtering each other in civil war, they were floundering against the barbarian invasions. Rome–divided, diverted and dissipated–could no longer threatened its Iranian nemesis. Indeed, the new Persia was on the attack, rampaging through Rome’s eastern provinces and defeating the legions that Rome could muster. This emboldened Persia demanded tribute and Rome was reduced to paying it.

Byzantium succeeded Rome and continued the policy of appeasement. But if the Byzantines lacked the military resources to thwart the Sassanid empire, they made an art of undermining it. Where there was an idle tribe of barbarians on Persia’s borders, Byzantium would subsidize an invasion. If there were a surplus of Sassanid princes, the Greeks would generously encourage a civil war. Between paying tribute to the Sassanids while subsidizing attacks on them, the Byzantines probably would have found it cheaper to be looted by the Persians.

The Byzantine machinations did achieve a remarkable coup, however. In 590, a deposed Persian king appealed to the Byzantines for support. Always willing to encourage Persian fratricide, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice lent Chosroes II an army and helped restore him to his throne. Chosroes’ response was unusual if not aberrant for a king: sincere gratitude. He established peace between the two kingdoms and dispensed with Persia’s extortion racket. Chosroes, who had overthrown and murdered his own father, behaved like an exemplary son to his Byzantine patron.

And when Maurice was murdered in 602, Chosroes declared war on the usurper: a red-headed and warted miscreant named Phocas. This war was more than the usual Persian exercise in pillage; it was a determined, uncompromising effort to overthrow the usurper. And Phocas certainly was helping the Persians. He executed capable generals, replacing them with idiot relatives. His order to coerce the conversion of Jews set off riots and civil war in the very provinces where the Persians were encroaching. Rather than resisting the invaders, Byzantines were defecting to Chosroes. Persian armies quickly conquered Syria and Asia Minor. The ease of these campaigns convinced Chosroes that he was the rightful successor of Maurice on the Byzantine throne.

However, Chosroes was not the only alternative to Phocas. There were quite a few plots against the usurper, and in 610 one succeeded. The new emperor was Heraclius, and he would live up to his name. His labors included the reorganization of the army, replacing a slapdash, unreliable collection of mercenaries with an uniform system of recruiting, supplying and training an army of Byzantines. This transistion took more than a decade, and during that time the Persians conquered all of Byzantium’s Asian provinces and Egypt. Chosroes now ruled a realm as vast as the first Persian Empire. To his frustration, however, the Mediterranean Sea put up a better defense than Byzantine armies. Since Persia had no navy, Constantinople and her European provinces remained safe.

Chosroes should have realized that he had reached his limits. The Byzantines would have negotiated–after all, they were Byzantines–but Chosroes had become insatiable, mistaking his luck for infallibility. He insisted the war continue, no matter how pointless it had become. He kept an army stationed on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, perhaps waiting for the Mediterranean to dry up.

Chosroes certainly had patience but so did the Byzantines, and they also had a navy. In 622, Heraclius and his new army landed in Asia Minor and began the reconquest. Heraclius had created an army superior to any the Persians could muster. Furthermore, the Emperor gladly entered into unsavory but expedient alliances with Huns and other barbarians. Over the next five years, campaigning in Asia Minor, Armenia (as usual) and Mesopotamia itself, Heraclius’ forces smashed one Persian army after another.

On December 12, 627, near the ruins of Ninevah, Heraclius confronted Persia’s last standing army in Mesopotamia. This would be the decisive battle of the war. Chosroes was not there; his boldness did not extend to personal courage. On the other hand, Heraclius was feeling obnoxiously chipper. When challenged to personal combat by the Persian commander, the 52 year old Emperor accepted. The Persian general must have felt embarrassed to be decapitated by a middle-aged man. And the rest of the Persian army had the same kind of day.

Mesopotamia was at the mercy of the Byzantines. In frustration with Chosroes’ disastrous leadership, rebellion was breaking out in Persia and throughout what was left of the empire. But Chosroes refused to acknowledge the defeat and chaos. The next year his son murdered him. (This was a Sassanid family tradition). Persia then signed an apologetic peace treaty with Byzantium.

Byzantine supremacy would last all of eight years. It had recovered from the Persian invasion but had exhausted its manpower and resources in the effort. The Empire could not withstand a few thousand enthusiastic Arab horsemen who wrested control of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and North Africa. (And they still seem to be the predominant influence there.) Another small but equally zealous Arab force overran what was left of Persia.

So, in the war between Heraclius and Chosroes, Mohammed won.